For the attention of Mr. Kazi Habibul Awal, Chief Election Commissioner, Bangladesh Election Commission and Mr. Md. Mohiuddin Ahmed, Chairman, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
CC: Mr. Zunaid Ahmed Palak, State Minister, ICT Division; Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology; Brig Gen Md Ahsan Habib Khan (Retd), Election Commissioner; Mrs. Rashida Sultana, Election Commissioner; Mr. Md. Alamgir, Election Commissioner; Mr. Md. Anisur Rahman, Election Commissioner; Mr. Abu Hena Morshed Zaman, Secretary, Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology; Mr. Md. Shamsul Arefin, Secretary, Information and Communication Technology Division; Md. Riaz Uddin, PS to Honourable Chief Election Commissioner; Ms. Asma Dilara Jannat, PS to Honourable Election Commissioner; Ms. Habiba Akhtar, PS to Honourable Election Commissioner; Mr. Mohammad Quaruzzaman, PS to Honourable Election Commissioner; Mr. Shah Md. Quamrul Huda, PS to Honourable Election Commissioner; Erik Aas, President, AMTOB; Yasir Azman, Sr. Vice President, AMTOB; Rajeev Sethi, Vice President, AMTOB; A. K. M. Habibur Rahman, Director, AMTOB; and Lt Col Mohammad Zulfikar (Retd), Secretary General, AMTOB.
Public institutions have a duty to ensure that people can access open, secure, and free internet when they need it the most — including during important national events. During the 2024 general election, we urge authorities in Bangladesh to #KeepItOn.
As the people of Bangladesh head towards one of the most important election years globally, we, the undersigned organisations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 organisations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — appeal to you, Chief Election Commissioner Mr. Kazi Habibul Awal and Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Chairperson Mr. Md. Mohiuddin Ahmed, to publicly commit to ensuring that the people of Bangladesh have unfettered access to an open, secure, and accessible internet, and all other digital communication channels, before, during, and after upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for January 7, 2024.
It is crucial that the current authorities and telecom providers do not hamper people’s access to the internet to ensure that the upcoming election process is inclusive, free, and fair. We emphasise, the pursuit of a democratic mandate necessitates access to information and avenues for free expression, both online and offline.
Access to the internet necessarily means access to an open, safe, secure, and inclusive internet. The government should not be allowed to employ mass surveillance tools in Bangladesh which will have a chilling effect on the freedoms of people in Bangladesh.
History of shutdowns in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s government has used the internet “kill switch” to suppress dissent, which leads to underreporting of human rights abuses and violence. In 2022, Bangladesh recorded six cases of internet shutdowns, the fifth-highest across the globe. As recently as October 2023, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission reportedly directed telecom operators to shut down internet services during a political rally held by the opposition parties. Access to 4G and 3G services was slowed down during several divisional and regional rallies by the opposition parties in October and November 2023.
Authorities also suspended 4G and 3G mobile services around the 2018 elections, directly affecting the 86 million people who use mobile services. Previous violations also include cutting off internet access in refugee camps in September 2019 and throttling the internet in December 2022. Such indiscriminate and authoritarian abuse of executive power has contributed to Bangladesh’s open civic space being ranked as ‘closed’ in Civicus Monitor’s 2023 report.
Beyond blanket shutdowns and throttling, Bangladeshi authorities have also resorted to banning individual online platforms. In November 2023, an interministerial meeting proposed shutting down access to Facebook on election day to prevent the spread of misinformation and false propaganda. Hate speech, propaganda, and misinformation do pose a serious threat to democracies across the globe. However, blocking access to widely used communication platforms is not only disproportionate, but lacks any evidence of necessity or effectiveness. Authorities must work with companies and all affected stakeholders to ensure platform accountability and content governance.
Internet shutdowns harm human rights and hamper national economies
Internet and digital communications platforms play an essential role during elections; for journalists, media workers, and election observers to report accurately and promptly, and for people to be informed before and after casting their ballots. Internet access is also vital for human rights defenders and civil society actors to ensure that all parts of the election process, from campaigning to result announcements, are transparent and open, following due process. Obstructing access to internet services jeopardises this participatory electoral process. Research also shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand-in-hand.
Imposing internet shutdowns also interferes with people’s livelihoods, negatively impacting entire economies. Shutdowns can cost nations billions of dollars, with businesses, public organisations, and private institutions that rely on the digital economy losing huge sums of money. Cutting off the internet for even a single day can cost Bangladesh more than USD 3.6 million in GDP.
Internet shutdowns contravene international laws
Slowing or shutting down internet connection to suppress speech and assembly in the public domain violates commitments under Article 37 and Article 39 of the Bangladesh Constitution to freedom of assembly, as well as freedom of thought, conscience, speech, and press. It also undermines the fundamental principles of state policy under Article 11 of the Bangladesh Constitution to ensure effective participation by the people through their elected representatives at all levels of the country’s administration.
On the global scale, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bangladesh ratified in 2000, ensure the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Internet shutdowns are also strongly condemned in international convenings including the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 47/16, which denounces ‘the use of Internet shutdowns to intentionally and arbitrarily prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information’.
Telecom companies must respect human rights
Telecommunications companies and businesses have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedy for harms they cause or contribute to. Further, It is a criminal offence for an operator to interfere with telecommunication services without lawful reason under Section 67 of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulation Act, 2001.
We acknowledge the Bangladesh Election Commission’s recent announcement that ensures unfettered availability of internet services on January 7, and urge the Commission to expand the scope of its commitment to include pre and post-poll phases of election. Ahead of, during, and beyond the upcoming elections, we urge the Commission and BTRC to:
- Publicly commit to the people of Bangladesh that the internet, including social media platforms, will remain open, accessible, and secure;
- Order internet service providers to guarantee high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access;
- Order the telecom regulator to not thwart, throttle, or in any way undermine the safety of internet; and
- Direct internet service providers to keep people informed of potential disruptions and take all reasonable steps to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact their quality of service.
Please let us know how the #KeepItOn coalition can support you in upholding a free, open, secure, inclusive, and accessible internet for all in Bangladesh.
- Access Now
- Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
- Africa Media and Information Technology Initiative (AfriMITI)
- Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
- Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)
- Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP-Liberia)
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Common Cause Zambia
- Computech Institute
- Conexión Segura y Libre
- Digital Action
- Digitally Right
- Digital Rights Foundation
- Digital Rights Kashmir
- Digital Rights Nepal (DRN)
- Forum for Freedom of Expression, Bangladesh (FExB)
- Give1Project Gambia
- International Press Centre (IPC)
- Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF)
- Internet Protection Society (Russia in exile)
- Kijiji Yeetu
- Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
- Media Rights Agenda (MRA)
- Miaan Group
- Myanmar Internet Project
- The Nubian Rights Forum
- Office of Civil Freedoms
- Organization of the Justice Campaign
- Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
- PEN America
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR)
- Securing Organizations with Automated Policymaking (SOAP)
- Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet)
- Tech Global Institute
- Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE)
- Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
- Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG)
- Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC-Nigeria)